Thursday, September 30, 2010

A word to the wise. Or should I say letter?

X Japan plays Vancouver October 3rd. Those of you wondering what those gig posters are all about should check out my article on them in the Straight. As with all visual kei bands, not all of their songs will sit well with metalheads here, but check out their "theme song," "X," on their breakthrough album, Blue Blood (the one with the insert that's apparently modelled after the gatefold in Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure, except with more outlandish costumes. No, really).

(Note: the decision to render my references to the Emperor with a lower case-e was not mine! Apologies to anyone it offends - you'd be better off commenting on the Straight site than here.)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bloodied But Unbowed: the TV cut that was an amazing little film, jampacked with insights, images, and (of course) amazing music; edited with great energy and inventiveness; and the ending was perfect. Everything I criticized about the theatrical version was absent here (plus I didn't have to worry that Billy Hopeless would pelt me with a skateboard). There's still a bit of downbeat stuff as the scene dissipates and heroin, death, violence, prison, and "failure" become the topics, but it's balanced with Hopeless' narration about the surviving impact of the music, and the doc ends with exactly the shot it needed to convey the "unbowed" angle - DOA taking the stage for their 30th anniversary show - a little explosive blast as Joe hails the crowd, without any following chatter during the credits to distract from the impact of the moment, just the Subhumans playing "Fuck You" (delightfully uncensored by Knowledge). Great fucking film!

...and I'm sure I'm not alone among those of us who watched it when I remark on how strange it was to watch an hour of TV where I knew almost every single person on the screen. It's somehow weirder on the small screen than it was in the theatre...

Monday, September 27, 2010

My new delight: Fleischer brothers cartoons

A friend showed me some 1930's Fleischer brothers cartoons this weekend and I think I'm hooked. I never knew I had an interest in old cartoons, but my God! - check out this jazz-age pre-Hays Code Betty Boop cartoon, say, and tell me it isn't absolutely delightful! There's a whole archive of public domain Fleischer cartoons here. (There's also a $10 public domain four DVD anthology that contains tons of Fleischer stuff available at most London Drugs).

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Susanne Tabata: Bloodied But Unbowed Q&A

Okay, so - you need to know this to make sense of one of her answers below - after I posted a somewhat critical reaction to the theatrical screening of Bloodied But Unbowed, I got an email from Susanne quoting from one of Gerry Hannah's best-known songs. I guess she expected, from someone who knew what a gargantuan, sustained effort her documentary, chronicling the first wave of Vancouver punk, had required, that I be a bit more appreciative, or at least couch my criticisms a bit. It seemed, at the time, more important, as a contribution to the community, to share my reactions to the film in a totally honest and up-front way. Indeed, I still feel that the rather bleak ending of Susanne's film - or at least the cut I saw - underplayed how most of the bands she chronicles are either reunited or continuing on, with interest in some of them reaching a new high: the Pointed Sticks, Dishrags, and a semi-Modernettes have all toured Japan, while DOA have carried the punk flag into China; the Subhumans have put out one great new album, a singles comp, and re-recorded their "lost" & legendary Incorrect Thoughts; and even Art Bergmann, who seems broken and depressed at the end of her film, has played a show that revealed just how much fire he still has in him, despite all he's been through (quite a fucking lot, on either count). I wanted to see a bit more "unbowed" and a bit less "bloodied" at the end of her film - the ending of the film, which is mostly quite light and funny throughout, kind of sucker-punched me, with it's tales of heroin, prison, death, and terminal disappointment.

At the same time, don't get me wrong - as anyone who tunes into the Knowledge screening of it on the 28th can attest - Bloodied But Unbowed is an utterly vital - and very funny and entertaining - contribution to Vancouver punk historiography. I'm glad that Susanne has mended bridges with me - I mean, what the fuck was I gonna do with the Bloodied But Unbowed t-shirt I bought?

DOA's Joe Keithley with Randy Rampage, circa 2008. Photo by Cindy Metherel, not to be reused without permission.

Note: for those of you not up to speed, during the shooting of Susanne's doc, DOA's Joe Keithley fired original bassist Randy Rampage for the third and apparently final time, a few gigs short of their 30th anniversary concert at the Commodore - something not mentioned in the doc.
Now that we're all on the same page, here's a quick email Q&A with Susanne Tabata about her film.

Susanne: Good afternoon Allan. UNFUCK YOU.

Allan: So you ultimately decided to leave the issues between Joe and Rampage out of the film.

Susanne: That IS another film. And it's shot.

Randy Rampage, photo by Cindy Metherel. Not to be reused without permission.

Allan: How did that falling out affect your film?

Susanne: It definitely stalled and derailed things for a short while. It was hell. We were going to use present day DOA to springboard into the past. And use that as a through line. But when Rampage was gone from DOA, that was impossible to do. I salvaged one two shot of Shithead and Rampage and it's in the final cut - and it's real good. The Bob Rock sessions of DOA's 30th were connected to our documentary at one point. There are small remnants of it in the one hour tv version. So that recording project went out the door with Joe's own 30th anniversary DVD. It sent us in a different direction. BUT a better one as that's when I went to visit Mary-Jo.

Allan: You've received a bit of flak - from me as well - for ending the film on a down note. Care to rebut?

Susanne: I appreciate your honesty. So UNFUCK YOU which is why we are talking today.

This is a film with a narrative arc and while it's meant to be informative, the scene construction is supposed to take you on an emotional journey. A loss of innocence. When Art says " history is not written by the losers. ... No one talks to the musicians. If you don't make it you don't count," a lot of people can relate to that. These folks laid the foundation in this city for an independent music scene. Most of them didn't prosper from it. Let's just state that before punk got co-opted by big business - and got sold back to the masses - this story took place.

The bureaucrats who fund Canadian culture were none too interested in this film and it must have caught some by surprise when the mainstream writers - in particular every major in Greater Vancouver (Mackie, Harrison, Rowland, Kissinger, Zillich, Usinger - praise them all) - ALL took arms with the greater message that Vancouver punks finally get their due.
(Poster for the theatrical screening)

Allan: One thing I was really, really impressed by in the film was your ability to get very candid, open interviews with people. Everyone seemed to trust you and feel comfortable baring their souls. Having interviewed a lot of these people before, I was a bit jealous at how GOOD the stuff you got was! ... So: how did you approach interviewing people?

Susanne: I like to work alone or with one other person. The approach varies depending on what you are after.

Allan: How much unused interview footage is there?

Susanne: 100 hours at least.

Art Bergmann with Susanne Tabata. Photo by Randy Rampage, I think! Not to be reused without permission.

Allan: Who was the most difficult interview?

Susanne: Most difficult: Art Bergmann
Most difficult ( not in the tv cut ): Penelope Houston. Never never interview someone just before a show! She is the only interview I would consider a do-over.

I chose the cast. And they are individuals. I think the question is "who was the most difficult?" They took their turns. The 48hr weekend at my place with Zippy, Brad and Randy was difficult because it wouldn't end.
Allan: How have you re-cut the film for the shorter Knowledge screening?

Susanne: The Knowledge Network one hour was submitted before the festival cut was edited. So the tv hour was top priority. We have modules - self contained stories - on a number of chapters. And we talk about sequences as a team. Knowledge did have input in terms of asking for clarity on a couple of tweaks we did to tighten the show. Bodies have hit the floor. You didn't like 75 minutes? You'll hate 55.

Allan: What are your plans for a DVD release?
Susanne: We are collecting addresses and names on Once we get two other interviews into the show and work out 'fair' music licensing - almost done - we're pretty much there. For an extended version. We don't have a distributor at this point and want to hit some festivals in the US, Berlin, Tokyo. So the DVDs might be limited to certain territories depending on the nature of a foreign tv sale. Or something like that.

Allan: Tell us about the Toronto-Vancouver smackdown...

Susanne: Colin Brunton - who is a cog in the wheel of the Canadian tv establishment - is making a similar documentary on the Toronto scene from the same era. He's got a flair for comedy or at least has hand in a lot for getting good people to work for him - has a doc coming out called The Last Pogo Jumps Again. He had his robots watching our activities here and shortly after Bloodied But Unbowed got turned out at the Toronto International Film Festival for being 'too local', he remarked on my fb. So bring it on, early next year, the two cities are going head to head in a showcase.

... and that's all she wrote! Those of you without TVs or cable are urged to find a friend or relative who has one for the evening of September 28th. Those of you with TVs are urged to invite a friend who doesn't - it's a community event, after all. If you missed the theatrical screening during the summer, don't miss this one!

DOA at the Biltmore with Li'l Guitar Army

DOA by Cindy Metherel

I meant what I said in the Straight: DOA's Talk-Action=0 is my favourite DOA album since War On 45 - the original EP, not the CD reissue - and I'm hoping to catch them at the Biltmore on the 1st. Li'l Guitar Army, too, are the most fun "new" live band I'm aware of in the Vancouver scene right now (although I admit I'm a bit removed from things these days). I was actually really quite relieved - having given Joe a bit of shit in print here and there over the last few years - to find myself really enjoying the new disc, and several of the songs - "That's Why I'm An Atheist," "I Live In A Car," the Dylan cover, and "Captain Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Bones" have stuck with me since I reviewed it. Maybe none of them are quite up to the high watermark set by Something Better Change, but then, very few punk albums anywhere are. Time to give Joe some respect - I mean, hell, without DOA, would I even have been a punk?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Just spotted in the VIFF guide: Ellen Fullman film!

Hey! Anyone remember the Ellen Fullman concert at the Western Front a few years ago? There's a short documentary on her music in the VIFF, 5 Variations on a Long String, double billed with The Invention Of Dr. Nakmats (why have they left off the final U of his name?). It plays early enough on Friday that you might be able to see it before heading off to the Biltmore to see the L'il Guitar Army and DOA... if you were planning on doing that, that is...).

A VIFF film I don't recommend: Rise, Ride, Roar

There sure are a lot of movies in the VIFF, and it doesn't help if a reviewer like myself sings the praises of ALL of them. So far, though I've noted a few reservations here and there, I've only written about movies I've enjoyed, so for all y'know, I am shuckin' and jivin' and suckin' up to the VIFF, prostituting my talents like some abased cine-toady, making everything sound equally good. To demonstrate that this is not so, I will now ritually sacrifice an upcoming VIFF film on the altar of my blog. Admittedly, it's a film I didn't finish, but my lack of interest in it was so complete after fifteen minutes that I think that that serves as basis enough for a negative comment.

I like David Byrne, generally speaking. His work with the Talking Heads and his legendary collaboration with Brian Eno, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, are well-known and kind of speak for themselves, but there's a lot of stuff in his solo career that I really admire, too. In particular, his 1997 album Feelings is a very, very strong, even surprisingly edgy rock album filled with memorable, exciting songs and provocative, less-oblique-than-usual lyrics (check out "Gates Of Paradise" to see what I mean; make sure to wait til the guitars kick in). 2001's Look Into The Eyeball is a pinch less exciting, but still a good listen; I saw Byrne on two consecutive nights in Tokyo, playing a small club, on that tour, and given the title of the album, was delighted to present the Ultraman monster below to him, putting it on the stage at his feet between songs - whereupon he picked it up, smirked at it, and set it on the drum riser, so it stared out at us for the rest of the concert.

I was incrementally less fond of Grown Backwards, Byrne's 2004 solo album. Replacing rock instruments with those normally associated with classical music, it seemed a little too calculated to carve out a respectable niche in the highbrow art world; the songwriting wasn't bad, but it was just a little tame by comparison with his previous two discs. I rather prefer artists - like Iggy Pop or I, Braineater - who find new energy as they age (since the performances by both men that I saw this century kicked exuberant ass on those I saw in the 1980's). And then Byrne and Eno put out their newest collaboration, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, and... I just couldn't convince myself that I should buy it. What I've heard and read about it - from friends who admire My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, or even from critics who mean to praise it by comparing it to the work of Paul Simon and U2, or describing it as "exceedingly pleasant" - lead me to fear that it might just be a lukewarm pop album that will do nothing to sustain my respect for either artist behind it. (I avoid all those bland, unimaginative pop acts Brian Eno sometimes produces, too - I am quite happy to regard him as an adventurer and genius and don't really need to visit him at his dayjob.)

I was still reasonably willing to consider Rise, Ride, Roar for review. A 2010 concert film featuring Byrne onstage with a varied mix of modern dancers - and apparently donning a tutu at one point, though I didn't get that far - it positively oozes a desire to elevate the material, to make an art-spectacle for the mature, moneyed boomer/Yuppie elite, who would likely be the only people able to afford tickets to a stage production this elaborate. It begins - some might say audaciously - with an iconic tune from Byrne's most famous film appearance, Stop Making Sense, "Once In A Lifetime" - a song that I would have preferred left out of the film altogether, not just because it's overplayed; the tune is one of those songs whose original meaning, tied to the context of its creation, has become so vastly altered by time and exposure - I felt this way about pretty much every song John Fogerty sang at Deer Lake Park a couple of years ago - that it is now nothing more than a celebration of its audience, a signifier of status among its fans, and an excuse for nostalgia and audience self-congratulation. I really didn't need to see Byrne proudly perform it again, apparently basking in the greatness of the song as dancers careened about him chaotically. No thanks, Dave; the decision to begin the film with this performance shows that the filmmaker and myself are on very, very different pages as to how to keep a body of work fresh and alive.

I lasted, I think, one more song, a bit of harmless onstage aren't-I-cleverness involving office chairs and a kinda forgettable tune from the recent Eno collaboration, and a sequence explaining the role of the choreographers and dancers. People interested in modern dance might find the dance elements engaging - what I saw seemed too haphazard to really pique my curiosity. There may be performances later in the film that would have engaged me more, granted - but I would rather protect my respect for Bryne's work by not exposing myself to his current trajectory, and if you know what I mean by that, you might want to also do the same.

Granted, the film sounds and looks lovely, so fans of Byrne's recent work will surely enjoy it regardless, and I don't begrudge them that one whit - but I will not be joining them in the audience.

...another damn work dream, but this one I like; plus Larry Fessenden digression

Having just had a panic nightmare of being ill-prepared in class (see below), I've had a second dream involving work. What's interesting is that I think I can identify and interpret the elements in this one, slightly more complex as they are. The dream revolves around a pair of boots.

I own a pair of Blundstones, see? ...Those Australian slip-ons. My friend Dan suggested them - he's a devotee, and they're a great boot, but he must waterproof his or such, because mine, after a few years' heavy use in conditions of shitty BC weather and total neglect, have kinda started to rot, according to the boot repair dude I took them to. They've split along one side, where the boot meets the sole. They're still wearable, but not so useful if walking on a very rainy day, because the split will take in water; they can be patched - but, unless boot repair dude was just trying to convince me to buy some new boots, there's not much point; these boots are bound for glory.

Now, it just so happens that Dan and his gal came to my apartment in the suburbs the other week, and we ended up watching a film - Larry Fessenden's Wendigo. (That link is to a Wiki page; see here for Fessenden's website and some of his writings, or here for his page on Wendigo). To digress briefly - there's an article by Adam Nayman in the "Decade In Review" section of Cinema Scope that praises Fessenden as one of the most interesting new cinematic voices of the 2000's, and at least as far as genre cinema goes, I agree; Fessenden makes artful, intelligent horror films that are idea-driven without being didactic, and his four movies are the freshest horror films I've seen, no shit, since the last time I looked at a Val Lewton. No Telling is a horror film for the vegan-and-animal rights crowd, combining "mad scientist" tropes with the very real issues of animal research and genetic engineering. Habit - his masterpiece - is a vampire film about loss, grief, compulsive relationships, fathers and sons, and addiction, either to substances or sex. Global warming informs his most recent movie, The Last Winter - a copy of which I passed on to Dan And of Bison BC (a different Dan) after a gig, since I didn't have a Wendigo to spare, discovering in the process that, though he loves horror films set in frozen wastelands, and has written a series of songs about the Wendigo, reflecting his part-Algonquin heritage, he hadn't seen either film yet (which hopefully he has since remedied). The story involves an oil company team investigating the melting permafrost in Alaska, for the purposes of building a pipeline, not realizing that the thaw has released ancient spirits that are hostile to their presence. Wendigo, however - his previous thriller - looks at loss, fear, anger and violence through the eyes of a young boy, who witnesses his father getting shot during a stay at a snowy cabin in, I guess, upstate New York or such. The film, in its most interesting aspect, deals with how heroes, Gods and monsters help us organize childhood perceptions of life on an archetypal level, though it bends the figure of the Wendigo a bit so it plays on the side of the good guys - an agreeable bit of poetic license, because if you've got a Wendigo on your team, the other side better look out. A very significant image in the film is of the traumatized boy contemplating his father's boots, in the hospital after he is shot.

Back to boots. In the dream, I'm at a work-related union meeting. In reality, with the economic downturn, things haven't been so stable at my workplace, and I've been wondering if there's any way in hell I can give up my dayjob and make a living at writing. The meeting is a very relevant discussion of the situation at work, true to a few such meetings lately; but the location, as usual, has been scrambled. My sleeping brain either has a hard time connecting places with what happens in them, or else relocates things to make a point; in this case, it's quite curious, because the union meeting appears to be taking place in the building where Dan's apartment used to be (Dan my friend, not Dan And). For some reason, prior to going into the room where we're discussing things, we've all taken off our shoes, leaving them in an outer room. I've been wearing my rotting Blundtstones, as I sometimes do to my job; it happens that - again, in the dream, though I've been contemplating doing the same in reality - I have bought a new pair of Blundstones, which are in my bag.

The union meeting in the dream is as unexciting as union meetings tend to be, but where it gets interesting is afterwards, because, as we go to put on our boots, it transpires that someone has apparently mistaken one of my old, worn Blundstones for their nearly-new pair of the same, and - though how they didn't notice is beyond me - put on one of my boots and one of his, and left the meeting. I search everywhere, but after everyone has filed away, there are two boots left, and they very obviously don't match. I try them on briefly, and they look and feel ridiculous; the "wrong" boot - the unsplit, right-foot one, I should note - is perhaps a size smaller than the old one, and pinches my foot a bit. What to do? I run out of the meeting in mismatched boots, searching my coworkers as they walk up Davie Street (one of the clues to the relocation, since my school is not near Davie, but Dan's apartment used to be). None of them seem to have my boot. I go back to the room and search again, then try to see if I can match the "new," wrong boot with the new boots I've bought - but again, they don't look at all the same, and the dream becomes a sort of stress-and-searching dream, as I try to resolve my problem. Nowhere does it occur to me to just put on my new boots and be done with it; all I try to do is match either my old boot or the "wrong" boot with one of the new ones, as if it is somehow a rule that I must wear one of each.

(Note: people who intend to seek out Fessenden's Wendigo should be alerted: spoilers follow). With pregnant film imagery swirling in my mind around boots, relating to the loss of a father, from Fessenden's recently re-watched film; with my attempts to adjust to life since the loss of my own father - to "fill his boots" in taking care of Mom; with the division that has led to between my old life in Vancouver, and my new life back in Maple Ridge (my old hometown); and the burgeoning division between my old life as an ESL teacher and what may or may not be a new life as a writer - one I'm not sure will be workable, mind you, which is why, I suspect, I don't just put on my new boots and be done with it - it is very, very obvious where my dream got the boots from, even if they're a bit overdetermined as a symbol.

I think I'm going to buy some new boots today.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bloodied But Unbowed: the continuing saga of...

Susanne appears to have forgiven me for my review - which, really, is a little harsh, given the amount of struggle that went into the film and the amazingly candid interviews she gets from all the (surviving) principal players in the first wave of Vancouver punk. She says she will have answers to some questions for me tomorrow. Meantime, here's the poster for the upcoming Knowledge screening of The Best Documentary Ever Made About The Vancouver Music Scene...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

VIFF Preview: When The Devil Knocks, another must-see

Despite its rather provocative title, I had no particular interest in seeing When The Devil Knocks - official site here, trailer here - since it deals with a mental disorder I didn't think I had much interest in - Dissociative Identity Disorder, also known as Multiple Personality Disorder. Even less interestingly, for me, the film, as I read about it in the VIFF guide, deals with the treatment of this condition, and is based, in fact, on years of videotapes of therapy of a middle-aged Canadian woman diagnosed with it, who ultimately is healed. I have a fairly skeptical attitude towards psychology and psychiatry, for reasons I'll elaborate; I'm not so interested in the healing journeys of others, tending to get a bit crusty around even the concept of "healing," and though at different times in my life I've been fascinated by so-called abnormal psychology, at the moment, I'm finding normal psychology quite challenging enough. I attended a press screening of the film today only because, at 10AM, I had nothing else to do in the city, having come in by the morning train to take care of various bits of business, including a visit to the VIFC (aka the Vancity Theatre, which - let me never cease singing its praises - is still the nicest movie theatre in Vancouver, blessed of the best seats, the nicest design, the most cinephiliacally inclined staff, and state-of-the-art projection and audio, all of which make it a truly excellent place to see films). It was really on a whim that I went: why not kill time for a couple of hours with a free movie, since I was there anyhow?

The film, of course, turns out to have been fascinating, and I'm glad I saw it. It's immensely compassionate and remarkable, stripping away the demonizing taint of Hollywood, where the term "multiple personality" suggests Norman Bates or Session 9; the subject of the therapy, Hilary Stanton of Alberta, is presented as a fully human, gentle, courageous and intelligent woman who has been horribly wounded by a prolonged period of sexual abuse she endured in her childhood. Thanks to the intimate glimpses of her treatment and the lucidity of her narration, by the end of the film, there is nothing that feels alien, scary, or evil about her condition whatsoever, and we feel quite proud of her for having had the courage to cope and survive, by any means necessary, through a life far more difficult than most. More remarkably - because we are witness to a treatment that works, that actually helps her emerge as an integrated, single person at the end - we are forced to overturn any presentiment that we might have that such people are so damaged as to be beyond help. Therapist Cheryl Malmo clearly has a working system in place for helping individuals with DID, and it's quite a remarkable experience to watch Hilary being led through her program - patiently, compassionately, and under the guiding influence of the maxim that "when the devil knocks, invite him in for tea."

All that said, my skepticism about psychiatry, psychology, and so forth survived the experience quite intact. There have been all sorts of models for dealing with mental illness throughout human history, not confined to the systems of modern psychiatry and psychology, but also encompassing religious systems (cf. ideas of "possession"), the biles and humours of antiquity, the antipsychiatric craze of the 60's, and New Age pseudoscience, all of which might invite us to look at the same problems through very different lenses. None may be the equal of modern psychiatry and psychology as means of understanding and treating certain mental disorders, but that does not mean that we should forget that the models we operate under at present are still models, and as such, limited, bound by all sorts of cultural assumptions and extraneous imperatives that limit and channel them, just as all past models have been. To be a bit more concrete about it, there is the possibility that some thousand years hence we will regard the current trend towards wide-ranging prescription of antidepressants and Ritalin and so forth, driven in part by a capitalistic, pharmaceutically-inclined understanding of medicine, as being as barbaric, unenlightened, and widely misused as we now see the VERY RECENT institutional penchant for lobotomy as being. Despite continually believing at any point in our history that we're on the cutting edge, in terms of understanding the human mind, we're nowhere as far removed from the Dark Ages as we think we are, and in the case of a complex phenomenon such as DID or MPD (or whatever term you wish to know it by), I have often wondered if the model for understanding it does not vastly contribute to how it manifests itself. (Repressed memories, another contentious issue, also play a role in this film). I have no doubt that people can house fragmented and dissociated emotional responses to things - even in normal circumstances; I can notice, over time, all sorts of divisions and fragments and dissociations even within my own soul. That traumatic childhood experiences might greatly increase the degree of fragmentation in a human psyche seems reasonable, but I was neither convinced before nor after viewing When The Devil Knocks that it is accurate or necessary to regard each of these dissociative states as a separate human identity, which should be named and addressed as an individual being. I mean, if we lived in a culture that didn't HAVE such a model for understanding extreme fragmentation in an individual psyche, would such phenomenon nonetheless occur?
Maybe my skepticism seems excessive here, particularly given what I've just seen in this documentary, but I would have actually liked it if the filmmakers - anticipating a skeptic like me might be watching - would have sought to completely obliterate such concerns before proceeding to document Hilary's treatment. They don't even acknowledge that there is controversy around the condition, let alone try to lay concerns to rest. Though there is testimony from before Hilary began treatment that there were times she would fail to recognize her family members or behave strangely - say, forgetting how to drive when "taken over" by a "personality" that had never learned - there is no mention of her manifesting specific identities with names and discrete identities until, as I recall, two years into treatment, when suddenly the character of "Tim" asserts itself in Hilary's journal, perhaps as a result of Malmo's coaching. Before long, we've met a whole cast of other characters, and the main figures among the 35 or more separate personalities said to inhabit Hilary are actually given representation through actors, hired by the filmmakers (with Hilary and her therapist participating in the auditions) to represent these apparently separate selves - like Joanie, the victim, who holds the memories of the event most clearly and wants to die; Mary, the protector, who will challenge any threat to her authority; JD, the male rebel who acts out Hilary's anger; or Tim, who abuses Hilary, tells jokes, draws scary pictures, and identifies with the victimizer (it actually did remind me a little of the therapy tapes from Session 9, but without the malign creepiness). The therapy we see in the film does ultimately seem to work (although it takes years and doubtlessly a great deal of money); but it would have been nice if the film had done more than it does to explain how these "alters" functioned prior to Hilary's treatment, and that their "diagnosis" and discovery was not in fact a creative, collaborative process. Without more time spent on Hilary's backstory or the early phases of the treatment, it's impossible to tell how much of the phenomenon we see Hilary manifest are innate to her condition, and how much the result of the therapeutic approach.

Ultimately, however, from a filmgoer's perspective, this is all a bit of a quibble. Whether our current models of understanding, diagnosing, and treating DID are bounded by faulty assumptions, cultural biases, and so forth - and whether in fact they are the BEST model for treating a fragmented and traumatized individual - it doesn't really matter: because it's still fascinating to watch the therapy at work. The footage in this film is remarkable, a glimpse into a circumstance normally completely closed to the public. Having identified each personality and entered into dialogue with them, Malmo wins their trust, gets them into dialogue with each other, and ultimately encourages them to integrate - a process effectively visualized by the filmmakers by means of the actors. The experience of watching this happen is deeply thought-provoking and rare, and the mood one is left with is indeed rather healing, even for crusty skeptics like me... If any of the above thoughts interest you, you should see When The Devil Knocks...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Work: the nightmare

In the dream, I'm back at work, and everything is going wrong. (It's not exactly the layout of the ESL school where I currently am employed - my elementary school from childhood, or maybe the high school I taught at in Japan, seem to play a role, as well, in the shape and size of the classroom and the layout of the building that it's in). The photocopiers are acting up and someone distracts me as I'm trying to get my copies done, so I enter the classroom late, without my materials prepared, a mess of confused papers tucked under my arm and no clear idea what I'm going to do. I try hard to get the students' attention but the first couple of activities fail and I can sense that I'm losing the class and my own self-confidence; I'm getting that nervous, sinking feeling in my gut. I make a run for the photocopier while they're engaged in one activity, manage to get something else prepared, and briefly get their attention, my confidence flickering back to life as something finally seems be working... but then I don't know what to follow it up with and am apologizing and stammering. I come up with an idea, and start writing something on the board, trying to get a new topic started, but when I turn around, I notice (this never actually happens) that two Korean students, a male and female, are PASSIONATELY MAKING OUT in the class, ignoring me (and indeed, everything else). I interject, stop them, but I look around and see that many of the students are amused and several of them distracted, and suddenly I lose it and yell at the class to fucking pay attention; at which point, I notice a highly physically awkward new male teacher standing at my door - I've seen him shuffling about the school nervously a few times previously and have shivered in contempt, so vulnerable and incapable does he seem. He has a bundle of papers with him and wants to pass them off to me, and at first I think he's somehow returning things for MY students, but then I look at the crudely pencilled writing and realize that he's trying to get me to help him return his students' papers, not realizing that they aren't even in my classroom at that time. I feel sick with the knowledge that I've just blown my cool - and with a new teacher as a witness! what will he think! - but I explain to him, sweat trickling down my brow, that he needs to bring the papers to his class, that they're not here now... Then I turn to face my class again. What will we do next? ...How much longer is left in this class, anyways?

Somewhere in there I wake up. It's approaching 8AM. I sink back into my pillow, relieved that it's all just been a dream, but still feeling tensed-up inside. In reality, I've got time off work and a stack of writing projects lined up, many that I'm quite excited about (and which will pay! me! money!). Why does my mind need to interject dayjob nightmares into my life during these rare periods where I don't have a dayjob to go to? ...It's not like I have writing nightmares....

Saturday, September 18, 2010

VIFF review: American Grindhouse

There's probably a healthy chunk of cinephiles in Vancouver for whom American Grindhouse - that's the link to the VIFF listing, the official site is here - is essential viewing, and and I don't wish to dissuade them: the film is highly worthwhile, featuring all sorts of information about the history of exploitation cinema in America that I did not know and was most curious to learn. Its scope is enormous, beginning with Edison, looking at some of the trashier early Hollywood offerings (like the silent white-slavery feature Traffic In Souls), then zipping through the institution of the Hays code and the division of cinema into mainstream and underground channels. It then proceeds to take in varied "genres" of exploitation film, from nudie cuties to roughies to teensploitation to biker flicks to drug movies to gore to blaxploitation to women in prison to Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS, more or less following a timeline up to the present day, where the mainstream and the sleaze are one. Robert Forster provides affable narration, while a varied cast of commentators fleshes out the factoids and provides oft-colourful testimony - these including Fred Williamson, Larry Cohen, David Hess, Joe Dante, Allison Anders, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Jack Hill, William Lustig, and John Landis (seeming almost identical to the Landis of the better IFC doc The American Nightmare). A couple of the choices there are odd - I don't really connect Anders with Grindhouse cinema and it's funny that Lustig gets a fair bit of screentime without ever apparently being asked about his own movies - but anecdotes are consistently entertaining, like how Larry Cohen shot most of his cinema guerrilla-style on the city streets, without permits! Film clips, too, while brief, are often eye opening, particularly when dealing with lesser-known films - like the Nazi bikers vs. hippie Jesus flick The Tormentors, say. An avid notetaker and fan of this sort of cinema could easily emerge from the theatre with a list of twenty to fifty unforgettable, if at times awful, films to check out.

Nevertheless it must be said that American Grindhouse, for all its ambition, proceeds a little too hurriedly for its own good; it's rather like being ranted at by a cranked up film geek who somehow needs to prove he can masterfully present the whole history of his chosen genre in under 90 minutes. That's not without its charm, but there's a bit of an information overload that sets in, and, particularly as we approach the present day, this approach stops seeming to do justice to the films and genres it takes in (because really, how can you sum up blaxploitation in less than ten minutes?). I had actually expected the film to have a far narrower scope, taking in the glory years of 42nd street cinema sleaze, say between 1970 and 1975 - the period that the term "grindhouse" evokes for me, anyhow. That would have been more than sufficient, and would have allowed for more consideration of individual films, of their importance, impact, and ideas, as well as potentially offering more insight into the creative processes of the filmmakers or the conditions they laboured under; it could also have allowed the filmmakers to provide us more reason why - save for the obvious fact that these films are titillating - they are worthy of serious consideration now (assuming they are; the film doesn't venture to evaluate these movies, heaping the great with the godawful under an all-embracing cry of vive le grindhouse).

Still, this is an entertaining jog along the timeline of exploitation cinema, with more than a few delightful bits (I somehow had a lot of fun watching John Landis stumble over the pronunciation of Grand Guignol). Best not get your hopes too high, though - this is a good little doc, not a great one.

VIFF filmguide is online now! Start planning!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Caffeine and migraine

Day seven of my struggles with migraine; was just awakened at 3am by a new one. I've been trying to "taper off" my caffeine use gradually through this time, since I suspect that caffeine (or, specifically, caffeine withdrawal) may be a major factor in causing my headaches. It may not be the only factor, or, if there is more than one trigger at work, the decisive one, but the most effective way to get rid of my headaches is to throw caffeine at them, which makes me wonder if they're really all just about withdrawal. It's always been strange to me, given how personally plausible this is in my own case - and how other migraineurs I've met describe similar symptoms - that no one seems to have investigated this seriously.

My theory, in reducing caffeine intake as a means of ending my migraines, has been:

1. My increased caffeine consumption in recent weeks may have led to a state of stronger-than-usual dependency on the substance; as of last Wednesday, when I first noticed symptoms, I was drinking as many as four cups of coffee a day, regularly - two with breakfast and two others spaced throughout the afternoon, maybe with a shift to chai or black tea in the late afternoon and evening. It was, in fact, quite a lot of caffeine to be taking on a daily basis, especially for someone who periodically quits the substance altogether and considers himself highly sensitive to addictive chemicals and behaviours...

2. My headaches are entirely thus perhaps caused by the withdrawal of the substance; I've now developed a strong enough dependency on caffeine that if I don't take it every few hours, migraine will result - even if I'm fast asleep.

3. However, if I completely quit using caffeine, cold turkey, so to speak, the headaches will become much worse, whereas now, drinking the occasional cup of chai or tea keeps them manageable. (I eliminated coffee almost instantly from my diet last Thursday, the day after the first flickering symtoms, but I've had lesser sources of caffeine through the week, spaced through my day, and have had relatively mild pain, compared to the experience of quitting caffeine cold turkey, which I've done in the past). There is also the possibility, of course, that continuing to have any caffeine in my life at present is simply prolonging this bout of migraines, and that if I had just opted to have a weekend of severe pain, I'd be over the worst of it now, but... for obvious reasons contained within the phrase "a weekend of severe pain," I have elected not to follow that route.

4. But if I can eventually taper down my caffeine use - perhaps to the point of quitting altogether - the withdrawal symptoms may dissipate. Past experience shows this - after my last round of migraines, a few years ago, I completely cut out caffeine, suspecting its role, and was migraine free for quite some time. Back then, I gradually reintroduced caffeine - a substance I enjoy and value, despite its occasional ill effects - in the form of green tea, and then black tea, with no problem, and kept up their use for years without headache, only occasionally drinking coffee during this time. I did not return to regular coffee consumption until the early spring of 2010, when my new work schedule made the use of a strong morning stimulant seem appealing. I found myself enjoying a regular coffee on the West Coast Express; and it seemed quite natural to decide to buy a coffee maker at a thrift store and make my own, to cut down expenses. But caffeine is addictive, so my morning coffee on the train, since buying the coffee maker, has turned into two or three coffees in the morning, with more consumed at work... I'm rather embarrassed that I didn't see this coming.

What's most interesting to note is that since I last experimented with kicking caffeine as a possible remedy for these headaches, a website has sprung up - Caffeine and Migraine, written by one Barry Spencer - postulating exactly the thesis I'm operating under - that migraine, and indeed primary headaches, are caused by caffeine. The introductory passage is not the best-written section; I recommend starting with the conclusion, and then going back and looking at the Caffeine and Migraine sections, respectively, for his evidence. From his conclusion:

Pharmaceutical corporations sell billions of dollars worth of headache and migraine medicines each year, including tons of caffeine sold in the form of headache remedies. The companies that manufacture and market caffeine-containing headache remedies don't want any discussion of the possibility their wares may cause more headaches than they relieve. Those companies blame their customers for chronic headaches caused by addiction to their caffeine-containing headache medicines, claiming it's their customers' fault for failing to follow the instructions on the label and taking the medicines too often. But if a company sells an addictive drug that many of its customers become addicted to, whose fault is that? Pharmaceutical companies would prefer migraine remain a chronic, incurable, but manageable condition—managed by steady use of their increasingly sophisticated and expensive proprietary migraine drugs. If research determined caffeine withdrawal was the major or sole cause of primary headaches including migraine, and that most or all migraine patients can, therefore, eliminate their migraines without resorting to expensive drug therapies, companies that make and market migraine medicines stand to lose a lot of money.

Food companies that market caffeine [also] don't want consumers making connections between dietary caffeine and headaches...

...There may be very good reasons why the causal role of caffeine in headache and migraine would go undetected, in such a climate. I admit that this rather conspiratorial take on migraine appeals to me for political reasons, but Spencer's arguments also mesh with my own experiences with migraines. I'm sure if I were to eliminate all caffeine from my diet for a period - a difficult propositon, but one I've been able to do before - my headaches would stop altogether. It's a bit of an annoyance that I like caffeinated drinks so much, considering...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Migraines continue...

Just what one wants on taking four weeks off work to write: persistent daily migraines! Yay! My efforts at self-medicating aren't having much effect, alas. Ah well - I have several big projects brewing, and hope to have an interview up on a non-VIFF related film that will probably be of interest. More to come - migraines or not, I'm back...

Meanwhile, in South Korea (VIFF must-see #2)

I haven't followed Korean cinema closely. Most of the films I've seen (Silmido, Shiri, Old Boy, The Host) have been blockbusters that took after Hollywood, often using the language of mainstream cinema to explore authentic questions of Korean history and identity (rather than manufacturing consent and perpetuating ideology, the main functions of Hollywood fare). As such, they've been interesting experiences, but also tended to the cruel, and occasionally made me quite uncomfortable (as with the casually brutal rape scene in Silmido, where we get to see how dirty "The Dirty Dozen" really are; or with what seems an unfortunate political subtext to The Host, by which a father unfit to raise a daughter is subjected to an ordeal the end result of which is that he gets to trade her in for a son - a far more desirable state of affairs in Korean culture. I've spoken to Koreans and fellow cinephiles about this and have had a hard time finding anyone else who sees this in the film, but it's a reading I can't escape). Of the directors of the films above, only Park Chan Wook was doing interesting enough things on a thematic level that I chose to explore the rest of his "vengeance trilogy." Which was enough, really; I admired aspects of his cinema, but again, there's a darkness, a cruelty to it - as with the octopus-eating scene in Old Boy, which is perhaps the most disgusting thing I've seen in a film, or the extremely bleak conclusion - that I have a very hard time settling into.

It's refreshing to see a Korean film, then, filled with quiet compassion and insight. Lee Chang-Dong seems, with Poetry, to take after the Dogme movement - not stylistically, but in terms of fashioning a powerful drama out of the stuff of daily life - tho' Dogme filmmakers tend to bring an arch ironic smirk to their stories, channeling both a sense of slight superiority to the melodramas they craft and a hint of outright sadism towards their audiences, both of which are, thankfully, qualities wholly absent here. The story is fashioned of simple elements: an older woman, told she is in the early stages of Alzheimer's, joins a rather middleclass poetry class - the sort where people talk with great sincerity about "beauty." She takes care of a sullen grandson while her daughter works elsewhere, and works to make ends meet scrubbing the house and body of an older man who has had a stroke. When she discovers her grandson's complicity in a crime which has cost someone her life, she enters a sort of moral labyrinth, from which she may be too frail to emerge; the film follows her progress in close-up.
There's not much else I want to say about this film, but it's one of the best experiences I've had of Korean cinema, and will not disappoint VIFF viewers. I feel lucky to have seen two really good films seen so far...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

VIFF must-see number one: The Red Chapel

Stills from The Red Chapel by R. Johannsen

I like documentaries. I don't consider myself an expert in the field, but I've seen some fascinating docs in my day, and some of the living filmmakers I most respect - like Frederick Wiseman, Petter Mettler, or Michael Glawogger - are documentarians. Two of the films that immediately get my attention in the VIFF preview magazine are docs of a sort - James Benning's new, doubtlessly meditative and perceptually intense Ruhr, and John Gianvito's four-and-a-half-hour long Vapor Trail (Clark), about "the ecological disaster caused by a US military base in the Philippines." Gianvito's last film to screen in town, to my knowledge, was Profit Motive And The Whispering Wind, his haunting, moving, Howard-Zinn-inspired visit to graveyards and massacre sites connected to the US labour movement, filmed with no narration or - with one exception - music, just the sounds and images of markers and the rustling of wind in adjacent trees. I have definite intentions of viewing his new film this time out.

Of the hundreds of docs I've seen in my day, however, probably the one I would most recommend people seek out, as a somewhat neglected must-see - particularly for fans of docs-as-political agitation - is the cringe-inducing General Idi Amin Dada: No One Can Run Faster Than A Rifle Bullet (DVD Savant review here; it's sometimes also known as General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait), shot by Barbet Schroeder in the 1970's. Schroeder somehow managed to secure permission to film the then-dictator of Uganda at work, on the priviso that Idi Amin be able to approve how he was represented - say, proudly displaying his copy of The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion and explaining about Jews to the camera, or personally hosting a parade of Uganda's entire military force, which comes across as a cargo-cult approximation of a modern army, though perhaps formidable to some of Uganda's neighbours. The film gives the dictator enough rope to hang himself ten times over, and not an inch of it is wasted, leaving viewers in awestruck discomfort; Amin reveals himself to be so backward and brutish, as suggested by the Savant review above, that liberals will have to do a double-take to remind themselves that they are not participating in a racist action. It's a wonder that a team of Ugandan hitmen didn't seek out Schroeder and have him assassinated once the film was released - it ends up as a truly disturbing black comedy about the nature, use, and - mostly - abuse of power, which raises questions that confuse and unsettle that linger long after the film is over.

It's got nothing on The Red Chapel, however, screening in this year's VIFF. A definite descendent of Schroeder's film, but with all the cruelty and fearlessness usually associated with the work of countryman and fellow provocateur Lars von Trier, the film follows Danish director Mads Brugger and a fictitious Danish/Korean comedy duo - which includes a self-described "spastic" with a speech impediment, Jacob Nossell, who ends up the moral centre of the film - into the heart of North Korea. There, they propose to put on a comedy show of epic awfulness, deliberately constructing a grand-scale naked emperor for North Korean audiences to applaud and praise, taking full advantage of the earnest attempts of ideologically-hogtied lower-level officials to liaise with them and intervene in the rehearsals, without ever being able to freely speak their minds. (It would have been interesting for Brugger to shoot similar setups in Japan, China, and South Korea, as a sort of control by which he could factor out cultural elements from his subjects' responses; awful as North Korea no doubt is, at least some of what he criticizes as the result of life in a dictatorship seems more properly attributable to life in a Confuscian, conformist society, not too different from things I experienced in the Japanese high school where I worked). As with Schroeder's doc - as the narrator makes quite clear at the outset of the film - the filmmakers were under obligation to show their footage to the authorities in question - in this case, the North Korean secret police; an opening shot of Brugger reading a book of film criticism by Kim Jong Il is staged with their needs in mind. As with Schroeder's doc, however, the authorities in question had no power to influence how the film was assembled or narrated once the filmmakers left the country, which is where the betrayal could begin in earnest. It's not a comfortable experience in the slightest -where Schroeder stuck a figurative knife in Idi Amin's back, Brugger and crew drop a bomb on an entire country, revealing, critiquing, and mocking the servility and mendacity of an oppressed people, whose regime iron-fistedly pounds them into complicity (but who nonetheless appear to deal with the Danes with a certain amount of misplaced goodwill). It's an immensely brave piece of filmmaking, utterly unique, intensely thought-provoking, funny in all sorts of unsettling ways, and absolutely not-to-be-missed; it climaxes with the Danes participating in an anti-US rally that is right out of Triumph Of The Will. It's possibly cruel and maybe even offensive enough that even fans of Borat might dig it...
Reading Filmbrain's clips from Kim Jong Il's book, linked above, gets me thinking: the dictator really should start an English-language film blog. It would be an excellent propaganda move - especially if he began with a response to The Red Chapel...

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Fucking Migraine

Suddenly - at 3:45 AM - I am awakened with the awareness that I have a (potentially) massive migraine coming on. I can feel pressure in my head - on the right side; I believe this is a new variant, since I used to only get them in the left - and a stiffness and strange "opening" sensation in the back of my neck on the same side, as if all my arteries have become hard highways. My right eye feels blurry and soft-focused ("there's something wrong with my right eye," as the Original Sins - one of the great unheralded Stooges-derivative American bands - used to sing; it's one of punk's best Bible references ever). When I put my hand to my forehead, it feels like the right side is strangely shrunken. There's mild nausea. I realize from past experience that it's only going to get worse, but I lie in bed for fifteen minutes regardless, observing the symptoms, hoping something will derail them. Instead, they steadily grow.

It's been maybe two years since my last migraine (and speaking of religion, that's oddly Catholic-sounding, that). I hate them. At one point a few years ago I went through a week of consecutive headaches far worse than what I'm now experiencing, resorting to vasoconstrictors - the name always reminds me of velociraptors - which clamp down so hard on your circulatory system that heart attacks are included in the possible side effects. Medicinally-used (if not technically prescribed) marijuana seems a preferable resort, but if the migraine comes in the workplace, that's a little inconvenient, given our backwards and uncivilized drug laws, which make it inopportune even to mention if I have resorted to this particular treatment (ever, let alone tonight). By contrast, general painkillers and Advil and such don't seem to do much, but God knows I try them - the pain can get intense and you'll throw pretty much anything at it while you're able to. Alas, a scan of my medicine cabinet proves a complete absence of codeine - I must have brought it all to my parents' when my father was experiencing a lot of pain and discomfort, shortly before his death (ten months ago, now... it seems far more recent). Note to self: bring your codeine back! I pop an Advil, but it's a token gesture. I don't even have any velociraptors around...

A strange last resort, given my depleted weapons kit: coffee - caffeine can interact with migraines in unusual ways, though I know from past phases of relatively intense coffee addiction (when I was drinking eight or nine cups a day) that its absence can also trigger migraines (I would wake up at night, just like now, with a killer headache, and have to throw a coffee at it to make it go away; I don't THINK that's what's going on now, since my caffeine use has been fairly mild lately, but fuckit: I brew coffee anyhow). And just so I don't get nauseated from drinking just coffee on an empty stomach, I whip up a quick burger to have with it, which I devour with two cups of the elixir. And now, at 4:30 AM, 45 minutes in, there's a feeling that maybe this is dissipating - there's a slight sweaty coolness on my forehead that makes me think that, perhaps simply because its run its course, the headache is dissipating. (I realize it's kind of a weird choice to blog my way through it, given the brightness of my computer monitor, but I wanted to distract myself and wax dramatic about my experience as a way of making it pass more quickly).

Guhhh. And tomorrow is the "climax" of the session, with student evaluations to do and all sorts of marking that I simply must finish. Fuckit: caffeinated or no, right now, I'm going back to bed!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Still no inclination

This has to be one of my longest stretches of non-blogging since I started.

I'm doin' okay, just worn out. Teaching an extra class, added to my daily commute and my various stresses and responsibilities, has stolen from me whatever energy I might have otherwise used for writing. Money is an issue these days, too - there are some unresolved issues at my workplace that make my income seem not so stable - so what writing I do, I kinda need to get paid for.

Those interested in the John Lurie story mentioned below can find it online here - someone has scanned it, and posted two comments of Lurie's taken from another website. I posted a reaction to the article awhile back, got a nasty reaction from an unidentified party, altered my article, had some other reactions to it, and on reflection decided to simply remove the whole thing, since what I'd left online wasn't really saying much anyhow. Hoping the situation resolves itself, but I can't do it justice just now, so am going to step aside.

Meantime, there's not a lot I feel merits saying. My Mom's giant stand-alone freezer crapped out this weekend and I had to spend today, ostensibly a holiday, hauling thawed, dripping groceries - much of it stored from when my father was still alive, quite possibly untouched for years - down to the dumpster and mopping up the bloodied water pooled at the bottom of the thing. Mom fought me - she didn't want to lose the groceries - but they'd been thawed and sitting at near room temperature for maybe as long as 24 hours, and it really didn't seem worth the risk of refreezing them, particularly given her not-so-robust constitution. Plus they were dripping from the watery blood of the thawed meat, which saturated packaging and thoroughly soaked into the corrugated cardboard boxes that a lot of it was stored in, which also had to be torn up and thrown away, pink liquid spattering my shirt and oozing down my arms. Somehow on top of that, I managed to get my laundry done and haul down my recycling, but I didn't even touch the mass of student papers and tests calling out to be marked. Guess I can wake up at 5AM and take a run at them before I have to catch my train... Who can write in such conditions?